Order From Chaos

October 14, 2020  •  Leave a Comment

Many outdoor photographers consider the autumn foliage season to be the crème de la crème when it comes to subject matter. I certainly do. While spring (the "other" foliage season) is my favorite time of year, there's something unique and magical about the fiery hues of an autumnal landscape in transition.

Still, it can be somewhat overwhelming; the riot of color is mesmerizing but chaotic. While your eyes can easily edit what you're looking at - automatically filtering out the extraneous and focusing on whatever is of interest - the camera has no such ability. You might struggle to find a focal point in the wide view, while less expansive (but equally stunning) scenes often remain hidden in plain sight. 

Spinning an old saying on its head, you can't see the trees for the forest.

Capturing the foliage show is no different than making good photographs any other time of the year. Look for patterns, shapes, lines, contrast. Consider depth of field, viewpoint, focal length, and so on. As always, give careful consideration to the placement of elements within the frame and think about what ought to be excluded. Remove distractions. Simplify. If it doesn't support what you're trying to communicate, or makes it less clear, it shouldn't be in the photograph. 

One great way to simplify is to try something other than the "big landscape." Added bonus: if you're willing to look at things a little differently it'll exponentially increase opportunities to make unique and interesting photographs.

Vignettes Non-ConformistNon-ConformistA few maple saplings dot the woods otherwise dominated by a dense stand of conifers - making their brilliant autumn colors even more striking. (Hiawatha National Forest in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan)

You don't always have to go big to tell the story of foliage season. 

This transitional forest in Michigan's Upper Peninsula is spectacular in autumn as young maples screaming with color are scattered among towering, mature pines. They seem weirdly - and wonderfully - out of place: a whimsical juxtaposition.

Especially at dawn and dusk the pops of red, orange and yellow scattered across an otherwise dark and brooding landscape here are stunning. To me, it was a magic forest with the maples as nymphs darting in and out from behind the larger trees. 

It was beautiful but there was a lot going on. 

One dreary, wet morning this location kept calling me back. With fewer maples and most of them younger and smaller than in other areas I'd hiked, it was a little less "messy." Two fiery red trees commanded attention amidst all those huge pines. 

Here I included just one of them along with a dash of yellow from one of its cousins in the distance. Then it was a matter of moving around until I found a spot that provided good separation between the trunks of each of the pines, allowed the maple's trunk to be centered between two of the bigger trees, and left room for the little non-conformist to lean into the frame. 

To illustrate the "Magic Forest," I made a panoramic including both of the red maples along with many more of the pines. One location, two stories.


Raindrops Keep FallingRaindrops Keep FallingAs the remnants of Hurricane Nate move closer, light rain becomes steadier and heavier. Droplets cling to this maple leaf which has fallen to rest on a colorful fern. (Sieur de Monts - Acadia National Park, Maine) Close-ups are another way of simplifying the composition. 

On this day, I was playing beat the clock as the remnants of a hurricane were bearing down on Acadia National Park. Close-ups were about the only thing that might still be doable in the rapidly deteriorating weather so I made a beeline for Sieur de Monts to see if I could get a photograph featuring its amazing ferns. There are hundreds - thousands - of them in this section of the park and in autumn they turn intensely deep-orange. The colors popped even more vibrantly in the rain. Tightly packed with birch trees, tall grasses, fallen leaves, and of course the ferns, it's lovely but definitely chaotic.

When I saw this maple leaf covered with raindrops and clinging to the fern, I knew I'd found my subject. Initially disappointed it had come to rest colorful-side-down, I quickly changed my mind. The photo works better without competing colors. 

Side note: don't shy away from precipitation, especially in autumn, but do carry an umbrella in your camera bag (something like a collapsible diffuser will work, too). I wouldn't have been able to make this photo without mine; it shielded my subject from heavy precipitation, keeping it from moving. 

Beaver Brook Falls in AutumnDreaming of AutumnLovely Beaver Brook Falls framed by brightly-colored autumn foliage. (Near Colebrook, New Hampshire) Autumn as a Supporting Player

Rather than making it the star of the show, you can also assign the foliage a supporting role as in this example. The waterfall is clearly the main subject; the leaves are an accent. They create a frame and provide seasonal context. 

They also salvaged the shoot.

Many of the trees had yet to begin turning; those that had weren't exactly spectacular. I didn't want to squander the misty, damp conditions (great for color saturation), and it was the last day I'd budgeted for the far northern part of New Hampshire. Now or never.

This pop of orange was tucked in an out-of-the-way corner. The tree itself wasn't anything to write home about but was just about perfect as a framing device.

Don't be too quick to throw in the towel. If something about the scene captured your attention, keep looking for a way to compose it. Think creatively. Even if the color is muted, or you've missed the peak, or the conditions aren't what you'd hoped for, there are many ways to communicate the story of foliage season. 

The image of Thompson Falls in Pinkham Notch, New Hampshire (below) is another example of an understated approach to the foliage.

Often the further you hike into a mature forest, the less color you'll see; it's now high over your head. There's nothing special about the foliage in the background behind the falls. However, some really intense reds and yellows were directly above me. Only some of those leaves had begun to fall to the ground, but there were enough to make this work. They provide seasonal context, and even though there are just a handful, because of their placement in the frame they're nearly as prominent as the main subject. 

Thompson Falls White Mountains New HampshireThompson FallsThe falls are named for Joseph M. Thompson, one of the builders of the Mount Washington Carriage Road (later to become the Auto Road) and the man who drove the first horse-drawn wagon to the summit. (Pinkham Notch, New Hampshire)

Bottom Line

The autumnal foliage display isn't just pretty; it's great fun to photograph. Don't let it overwhelm you. Learn to see more deeply into the lovely chaos and you'll find plenty of ways to capture one of the greatest shows on earth. 

Winter is an etching,
spring a watercolor,
summer an oil painting,
and autumn a mosaic of them all.
-Stanley Horowitz


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